GET ME TO THE CHURCH ON TIME
Their albums are atmospheric, their concerts frenzied, their solo releases
remarkably diverse. What are these guys up to, anyway?
By F. Scott Kirby
It wasn't until the Church's bassist/lead vocalist Steve Kilbey first heard the group's current single "Under the Milky Way" lofting gently through the doors of a Hollywood adult book store during a leisurely afternoon stroll some weeks back that rea lity set in — at long last he'd made it. But things have not always been so rosy for Kilbey and his three Aussie bandmates, guitarists Peter Koppes and Marty Willson-Piper and drummer extraordinaire Richard Ploog. In light of their current chart-topping success, it's shocking to discover that the band has been on more record labels in the last eight years than the Lakers have championship banners hanging from the Forum ceiling; this fact makes their current prosperity all the more satisfying.
Throughout the Eighties, the Church has offered sparkling (albeit surprisingly aggressive) live shows — reaping scant rewards for their efforts. Now, however, the band has at last allied itself with a firmly committed label Arista Records which is aggressively taking the extra steps necessary to break this quirky but tuneful band.
Starfish, the Church's first for Arista, has logged sales of more than 400,000 units. and it's just a matter of time before the LP goes gold. "We are realistic enough to understand that more American top 40 listeners may be baffled by our approach to music compared to most of what they hear today," states the pixie-ish Kilbey. "But our album sales support our belief that we can carve a specialized niche in the States."
While Kilbey believes the group has a relatively straightforward stance from a musical standpoint, he is quick to point out that the Church's lyrical approach is something else again. "In every lyric I write," he states, "I want to evoke a kind of Twilight Zone flavor. Like certain elements in my songs will be perfectly ordinary yet presented with a slightly bizarre, surrealistic twist." Rod Serling would no doubt concur. The Aussies' last two albums Starfish and its predecessor, Heyday (Warner Bros.) have put across their ethereal, often eerie dreamscapes with enough pure pop savvy to please undergrounders and mainstreamers alike. On the other hand, fans who are taken in by the pastel shades of the Church LPs will likely be startled by the band's pyrotechnic approach to live performance. Indeed, at a recent gig in the cozy confines of L.A's Roxy, I was instantly sent reeling by Ploog's Bonham-like drum introduction, and the entire 90-minute set crackled with raw intensity. A bit o f overkill perhaps? According to Kilbey, the band naturally gravitates toward bombast onstage.
"I guess when you're in a group, you're always attempting to achieve a happy balance amongst bandmates," he says. "But it seems there's a constant tug of war of emotions between us where one minute we feel we're being too Spinal Tap, another too delicate, and so on. I feel that we've reached the pinnacle of our aggressiveness live, though. Personally, I'd love to see us venture into more of the ethereal quality we display on record."
This emphasis on atmosphere characterizes not only the band's recent LPs but also the latest solo albums by Kilbey, Willson Piper, and Koppes (just released on East Coast-based Rykodisc). During the three-week span after my initial meeting with Kilbey at the rustic Coach House in swallow-besieged San Juan Capistrano, I tracked down Willson-Piper and Koppes at various stopping points on their American tour to discuss their solo projects and non-Church-related endeavors. Willson-Piper, possibly the most distinctive member of the band with his swaggering stage demeanor and sheep dog coif, is a self-described "workaholic" who coincidentally, also happens to be the only bandmember not born in Australia. Indeed, a classic British reserve can be discerned throughout his just-released Rykodisc CD Art Attack.
"Coming from Liverpool, I still walk around grateful that I have a job," he says matter of factly. "I tend not to dwell in the mystical Salvador Dali-inspired realm that fuels Steve's thought patterns. It is, after all, hard to concentrate on anything but the most grim, mundane issues when the country you were reared in teems in poverty, disillusionment, and governmental apathy.''
For a stirring musical essay embodying Willson-Piper's conviction, check out the very topical, painfully candid "Evil Queen of England" on his new CD. Pure disgust abounds from every bitter line. On cuts like "Too Round to Be Square" and "You Whisper" however, a jovial spirit surfaces that more than offsets the guitarist's grim recollections of youth. "People frequently comment that 'Whisper' captures a certain early Pink Floyd flavor, and I guess sometimes I
wear my infatuation with Dave Gilmour's guitar playing on my sleeve," he admits. "But my idea of pop music as expression is, in essence, to be everything to everyone. I'd love to achieve the diversity the Beatles did when they featured 'Martha My Dear' and 'Revolution #9' on the same LP."
Most folks assume that since Willson-Piper is a transplanted Brit in an Australian band, he would naturally reside in Australia — but such is not the case. Art Attack is brimming with references to his current habitat — Stockholm, Sweden. "I moved there initially to be with my girlfriend, Anne Carlberger," he explains. "But the more I live there, the more I like it. There are no people starving in the streets, for starters, and it's a caring social democracy that makes Britain's rulers look barbaric by comparison." In addition to Art Attack, Willson-Piper is starting an offshoot band, for which he has already composed much of the material, and he's producing an album by a Swedish friend. One would expect these projects to take valuable time away from the Church, but Marty assures us this is not the case.
"I'll make time for the other projects," he promises, "'cause I don't really require any time away from my work. I'm a firm believer in Voltaire's philosophy that 'to work is to live.' I don't see any conflicts with the Church, because I can and will make time. The band is my number one priority, but if I can accomplish other musical objectives without jeopardizing my creative input, I will." One thing's certain — it sure beats starving on the streets of Liverpool.
Whereas Willson-Piper's music is built around ringing twelve-string guitars and biting social commentary, the solo music of his guitar-playing counterpart Peter Koppes emphasizes the atmospheric side of the Church's purview. Of the four members, the rangy Koppes is the most deliberate in speech and manner. Perhaps being the father of two energetic preschoolers has something to do with the man's inner calm and even disposition. Onstage, however, it is Koppes' linear, reverberating guitar passages that provide the axis from which Kilbey and Willson-Piper revolve. What is especially intriguing about Koppes' just-released Manchild & Myth is that much of the music features Baroque church organ rather than the searing Stratocaster that propels the Church's power pop.
"I first became intrigued by that [classical organ] sound while studying a striking Renaissance church interior on one of our early European tours," he recalls. "There was an incredible-sounding recital taking place, and I never forgot the power and beauty that classic sound evoked. It's obvious I tried to recapture that secular quality on quite a few of the tunes on Manchild."
When Koppes explains his instrumental evolution, the decision to focus on keyboards seems perfectly natural. "The first instrument I took to as a child was an old pump organ in our sitting room," he says, remembering his formative years in Sydney. "Now I adopt that ringing sustain on my guitar approach, and I keep as far away from barre chords and traditional finger positions as possible.
"What's really important, though, as far as the Church are concerned is not my playing, or Marty's, or Steve's from an individual standpoint, but how we interact together. To me, that's what makes the Church the Church."